Magazine Feature

'Good Morning Boys and Girls'

When a simple greeting engenders stereotypes.
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Illustration by Robert de Michelli

It happens every day across the nation: Teachers welcome their students to class by saying, "Good morning, boys and girls."

It's one of countless ways teachers highlight gender with their speech and behavior.

  • In one kindergarten class, children count the number of girls present each day and place a corresponding number of female paper dolls on a graph, then do the same for the boys.
  • Other teachers assign classroom or lunchroom seats in boy-girl alternating order, sometimes as a casual norm, other times as a disciplinary tool.
  • And some set up good-natured competitions, such as a boys vs. girls spelling bee.

Most school staff and parents perceive such practices as harmless. Some teachers even choose such practices with the goal of increasing gender equality within their classrooms. One elementary school math teacher, for example, ensures equal gender participation by alternating between male and female students to work problems at the blackboard. "We need a girl to work the next problem," he says.

Unfortunately, teachers' use of gender to label students and organize the classroom can have negative consequences.

New research in the field of child psychology suggests that teacher behaviors can play an important role in shaping their pupils' gender attitudes. Although this general conclusion is not necessarily surprising, which behaviors are important often surprises teachers.


When Words Hurt

Imagine if a teacher used race labels in similar fashion: "Good morning, whites and blacks." Or used ethnicity as a way to organize classroom activities: "Latinos, get your backpacks now."

Most readily expect such practices would increase — not decrease — children's racial stereotyping and prejudice. Gender labeling works in a similar way to increase children's gender stereotyping bias.

Too often, teachers use gendered terms in the classroom — boys, girls, men, women — without thinking about the impact of such words. New research suggests, however, that such language draws children's attention to gender — rather than other more important characteristics of individuals within classroom settings, such as their personalities or skills.

This practice also leads children to believe that teachers' are intentionally signaling the existence of important differences between genders — even when they are not. When teachers use noun labels rather than adjectives to describe any group of people — girls, Native Americans, Catholics — children are likely to believe the people in that group share meaningful and unseen characteristics. That, then, is how the seeds of stereotyping are planted.

A teachers' use of gender labels also can cause children to perform poorly on tasks at which they would normally excel. This phenomenon is called stereotype threat. It occurs most in academic areas that are stereotypically linked to the other gender, such as when girls perform math problems.

Studies show that thinking about gender causes girls to perform significantly worse on a challenging math test or problem than they would normally because they worry about confirming others' beliefs that girls are bad at math. Similar studies have shown that African Americans also under-perform on intelligence tests when thinking about race.

This is another important reason that teachers should not inadvertently highlight gender in the classroom with their behavior, including language.


Words that Work

As a first step, classroom teachers should avoid making statements such as, "The girls are doing a good job," or, "The boys need to be a bit quieter." This will help all children concentrate on their identity as students rather than as members of a gender group.

Psychologists who study groups recommend that teachers organize classrooms by using educationally relevant groups, or groups whose membership changes frequently. So, for example, children who are learning about the months of the year could be asked to line up by their birthdays. Alternatively, children could be asked to sit in groups according to whether their shoes have buckles, laces or Velcro.

Of course, gender cannot and should not be ignored in all situations. Children will frequently comment about gender themselves, and some curriculum content is related to gender. It is appropriate, for example, to discuss gender barriers that have been broken — the first female astronaut, the first female U.S. senator and so on.

When presenting roles that are linked to gender group — such as the presidency of the United States — teachers should explicitly discuss why one gender is associated strongly with the role. Ask, for example, "How are these people similar? Why do you think only men have done this job?" Teachers and students can then discuss gender discrimination, gender stereotyping, sexism and other issues.

Mentioning sexism (and racism and other -isms) is important. Children who understand the environmental factors that lead members of social groups to perform different roles are less likely to explain these differences in terms of innate characteristics — "white men are better leaders" — and will, therefore, be less likely to embrace or accept gender stereotyping and bias.

Which can lead to a new morning greeting: "Good morning, students!"

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